Review: WatchOS 2 offers timely (and needed) tweaks

21 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Apple Improves the Watch, Slightly.

The Apple Watch has been on sale since the spring, and like all Apple products, it has been the subject of intense speculation, criticism, fawning and doomsaying. The first version of watchOS required the watch to mirror iPhone apps instead of running directly on the watch, which limited their capabilities and slowed down loading times. The new software is supposed to deliver faster performance to your wrist and supply new watch face options, including the ability to use your own photos as the watch face. WatchOS 2 apps can also tap into the watch’s sensors, so the Taptic Engine, accelerometer, heart rate sensors, and Digital Crown all come into play.

I’ve been wearing an Apple Watch (gold finish over aluminum alloy, $399) running watchOS 2 for the better part of a week and while it is an improvement, there were virtually no third-party apps ready to test on it. Of Apple’s own Watch apps, only two — Stocks and Weather — are now “native,” and I have to admit, the change wasn’t particularly noticeable.

By the way, if you’ve been eagerly awaiting the big update, then you know that we all had to play the waiting game as Apple postponed Wednesday’s release to deal with an unexpected bug. If you really want to get fancy, you can set a time-lapse video from a handful of global metropolitan cities — or from Mack Lake, which I can only guess is an Apple executive’s favorite vacation spot — as your default face. For most of last week, in fact, I had my Apple Watch face set to a time-lapse of Hong Kong, a wonderfully unpolluted little video of Hong Kong, even though I don’t live there.

It’s a testament to Apple’s marketing philosophy that it can take an action like “scrolling through my calendar” and name it “Time Travel” like it will wirelessly unlock the DeLorean that has magically appeared in your driveway; but that’s what it is. The aluminum-alloy Sport model now has gold and rose gold finishes, a variety of new bands and even the new Hermès models that feature impressive leather bands, the word “Hermès” etched on the back and custom Hermès watch faces. With certain watch faces — like Modular — you can now use the digital crown to roll forward or backward in time and see corresponding events in your calendar. If you’re using a sports app, you can see times for upcoming games; if you’re using a news app, you can see news updates from earlier that morning, and so on. Again, I haven’t been able to try these third-party applications, but in my limited testing on watch faces, this was a fast, fluid, and useful feature.

The best way to think about watchOS 2 is that it puts the watch more firmly in control of the experience, making it somewhat less reliant on your Bluetooth-tethered iPhone. Then, around the time that Apple introduced the App Store, the bell curve that represented all of this smartphone savings turned back on us and started eating all of that time up and then some. Yes, there have been real, life-changing apps and services to come out of the app marketplace boom. 1Password, Uber, Evernote, Waze, Word Lens, Dropbox, YouTube, Spotify, Amazon, Instagram, Twitter and many other icons on your smartphone have likely altered the way you live or see the world. As I argued in July, it’s too early to tell if the watch will become a hit because all new major Apple product introductions tend to follow a familiar script. I was able to say things like, “Hey Siri, I want to go for a run,” and Siri would open the watch’s native workout app, which meant I didn’t have to fat-finger a bunch of tiny app icons to open the app myself.

And since Apple’s Maps app includes public transit directions in iOS 9, I could say to Siri, “Hey Siri, transit directions to San Francisco,” and the watch would show transit directions to the city. Games are great — I’m a gamer to the core — but most popular phone games are specifically engineered to devour our attention and money that you could be paying into other pursuits. What’s important, though, is that Apple is figuring out what the watch is for and experimenting with some new ideas that may ultimately prove quite novel. Offering far more active watch faces, many of which offer more live information and, when the third-party apps arrive, more watch-face integration options for third-party companies like CNN and MLB, both of which are this close to releasing updated Watch apps. And that doesn’t even get into the agnostic services like email push notifications, messaging and social networks — time sucks that you deem necessary and contribute to.

You access watchOS 2’s preloaded Time-lapse faces by pressing down harder on your existing watch face until your feel the Force Touch vibration, then you can swipe though additional face options. WatchKit, though it enabled developers to draft up the minimum skeleton of a Watch app quickly, left a lot to be desired when it came to direct access to more powerful sensors. It’s clearly the early days of watchOS 2, despite the fact that Apple has been teasing the update since its giant developers conference this past June.

Additionally, its communications protocols were slow and clunky, presenting many Watch owners with a flawed, laggy view of the true capabilities of the device. First of all, apps can be loaded directly onto the device and run “natively.” Previously, apps ran on your iPhone and ‘projected’ their interfaces to the Watch, creating an inevitable delay as the two devices communicated, figured out the proper response and sent that information back to the Watch in a big lump of comms traffic. For me, this change resulted in a slight but noticeable increase in speed in the watch’s Weather and Maps apps, and it will probably appear soon in other apps, too (once they’re updated by developers). A lot of people would say — and I agree — that this third-party app experience is even more crucial to the watch’s success than the native apps. Streaming protocols allow your iPhone to continuously deliver the data that your favorite app needs, enabling them to feel like they’re ready to obey you.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how health and fitness apps actually patch into the native sensors of the watch (like the heart rate sensor) and whether that improves the overall experience with my favorite third-party fitness apps. This doesn’t sound like much, but when lots of developers update their apps, many tiny speed increases will likely add up to a more pleasant experience. She can be listening for the magic words, “Hey Siri.” Before you get started, you’ll have to setup the new “Hey Siri” functionality on your iOS 9 device (iPhone 5S and up).

The designer label Hermès is also creating its own editions of the watch; these versions include Hermès watchbands as well as a special Hermès digital watch face that matches the design of the Hermès analog watches. Also you do have to raise your wrist to wake up the watch and, unlike the iPhone, which can be trained to your voice, Apple watchOS 2 will – at least in my tests — listen to anyone who says “Hey Siri.” You can use “Hey Siri” to ask for the new transit directions. Then I said “Transit direction to Carnegie Hall.” Siri understood me both indoors and about 75% of the time outdoors on New York City’s busy streets. Don’t get me wrong, Apple Watch is still very good at what it’s good at: it shows you near-immediate notifications, nudges you to exercise, and carries a certain cachet that few, if any, other pieces of wearable tech can claim.

It’s the equivalent of picking your way through your calendar app, your weather app and your news app to cobble together the shape of your day — all in one scroll of a wheel. The best active Watch apps provide an actionable item within a thin temporal or spatial window, and that item takes between 1 and 3 seconds to act on. They provide you a notification, you act or don’t act on that and move on with your life: You’re walking out the door and your wrist tells you your Uber’s license plate number; you cross a neighborhood line and you get an alert from Foursquare that you’re near a lunch place that you’ve saved; you’re told that your team has just taken the lead. On an episode of The Talk Show a while back, I called the Watch a ’tube of lubricant for your life’, and it’s this possibility that is the most exciting to me. Somehow, unbelievably, humans have stumbled onto the computing paradigm that is going to define how we interact with the systems of the world relatively early in the technological timeline.

Whether we call it a smartphone or not in the future and whether it shrinks or grows, the concept of a personal computer that contains what we are, digitally, and can act as the central ‘processor’ to a host of companion devices like desktop terminals and wearables is here to stay. If you accept this premise, then it makes sense to imagine a world where there are various pieces of purpose built hardware orbiting around our ‘central processing unit’ that are all suited to various tasks. This is the missing bit to the ‘cloud computer’ — a way to triangulate our physical beings and our digital universe in a way that feels human and logical. When you’re a few feet away from your door, your home uses Bluetooth triangulation and your alarm to see that no one else is inside and locks the door automatically.

You reach for your car door and it knows it’s you, unlocking the door, adjusting your seat and entertainment system to your liking and pulling your most likely destination to your navigation system. Unfortunately, aside from Weather and Stocks (which did not gain much benefit from the switch to native), I did not get the opportunity to try out new third-party apps, but did see some watchOS 2 native apps in action. You sit down at your terminal and it confirms your ID without having to enter a password, pulls your latest Office docs from your phone to grab your late-night edits and you’re off.

Combine that with payments, passes, transit and loyalty and a smattering of predictive features provided by the more powerful processor in your phone and you have a 50-gallon drum of smooth juice. I saw it work with the spoken word, which means the app uses the watch’s microphone and then the watch spoke the translated text, which means the app uses the Apple’ Watch’s speaker. It will also, according to iTranslate, use Time Travel to show you phrases that you may want to use at different times of the day, for the region you’re in.

This doesn’t even touch on the potential that the Watch has to act as an X-ray device for our bodies, alerting us to health issues before they become serious. A few months ago I monitored a loved one’s heart episode live with the Watch as it happened, and it provided a far more continuous and active view of what was happening (a trained nurse was on site, and we were ready to take appropriate action).

You can’t always, at a glance, see where the apps are, and at that size some look very similar. (Weather and OneDrive are good examples.) I actually like Samsung’s Gear S2 circular app interface better. Adds more life to Apple Watch screen • Time Travel is genius • ‘Hey Siri’ is fun and useful • Access to native Apple Watch hardware could transform apps But just as Apple’s tight handle on hardware and software give it an edge when rolling out integrated systems, it also creates barriers to making this kind of future happen. The company has already run into issues getting manufacturers to turn out new products because it requires specialized chips that support heavier-than-average encryption.

For all of Apple’s protocols and chatter about HomeKit and its hundreds of millions of compatible devices being actively used by customers, those third parties don’t get a seat at the design table.

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